When the Bears had a quarterback issue, they turned to Nick Foles.
When wide receiver Anthony Miller’s production dipped, they turned to rookie Darnell Mooney.
With rookie tight end Cole Kmet still getting acclimated to the offense, they turned to Demetrious Harris.
But an underperforming offensive line is much more problematic. A team-within-a-team, the issues are often hard to define. They take turns contributing to the problem — Bobby Massie gets beat on one play, Cody Whitehair the next and Charles Leno the one after that.
And you usually can’t just plug one new guy in and fix it. In fact, that can create as many problems as it solves, given the chemistry and unspoken communication it takes to develop an outstanding offensive line.
You need continuity. The only time in the last 20 seasons the Bears have ranked in the top 10 in points and total offense was in 2013, when all five lineman started every game, with two rookies on the right side in Kyle Long and Jordan Mills.
Therein lies arguably the biggest issue for Matt Nagy and his offense heading into Sunday’s game against the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
By a legitimate NFL standard of run production, the offensive line of Leno, James Daniels, Whitehair, Germain Ifedi and Massie has been the definition of mediocre. The Bears averaged 138 yards and 4.9 yards per carry against the Lions, Giants and Falcons, who currently rank 32nd, 15th and 14th respectively against the run.
But when the bar was raised against the Colts (third in the NFL against the run) and Buccaneers (first), the Bears awkwardly crashed into it, not even getting off the ground to try and clear it. They rushed for 28 yards (1.8 avg.) against the Colts and 35 yards (2.5 avg.) against the Buccaneers.
Now they’re trying to pick themselves up off the floor without guard James Daniels, who suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle against the Buccaneers. The 23-year-old Daniels, a 2018 second-round draft pick from Iowa, was the Bears’ best lineman and had the biggest room for growth. He’ll be replaced by either Alex Bars, a 2019 undrafted free agent; or Rashaad Coward, a 2018 undrafted free agent defensive lineman who moved to offense last year and started 10 games at right guard in place of Long.
“Our objective now is to make sure we keep getting better,” offensive line coach Juan Castillo said. “You’re right — when we played average or solid [fronts] … we were able to run the ball. And these last two fronts, they were top NFL fronts — probably two of the better defensive lines in the league. For us, that’s a measuring stick. We’ve got to be able to run the ball against people like that.
“It’s about fundamentals. It’s about doing something over and over so that you are able to make that block. This is what, five weeks? We still have a few left. The important thing for us, it’s a progression. We’ll get better every week.
“That’s what Andy Reid taught me in Philadelphia. It’s not today or tomorrow. It’s a progression. It’s 16 weeks and you want to be ready every week to get better and better and better.”
The Bears figure to fare better on Sunday against the Panthers, who rank 25th against the run (31st in yards per carry). But then come the Rams (10th in yards, 23rd in yards per carry) and Saints (sixth/third). Only then will we know if the Bears’ hard work is paying off.